BEAST AND BOY
A familiar story and some great characters
At some point or other, almost every kid finds a stray animal he or she wants to take in, cuddle, train and love. It’s usually a cat. Sometimes a dog, and every once in a while — a mythical beast.
We’ve seen Harry Potter befriend a variety of magical creatures, and a boy named Elliot give a bike ride to E.T. We’ve seen a kid named Max hang with curmudgeonly hairballs in
Where the Wild Things Are, while Free Willy continues to swim in the concrete pool of the public imagination.
The plot works, because it’s a scenario we can all relate to, and it comes with dependable emotional buttons that are easy to push, as beast and boy transcend species boundaries to embrace a new brand of friendship.
How to Train Your Dragon does not deviate from the well-worn path, but it understands the formula well, crafting an elegant arc without feeling clichéd or sappy.
The only thing that seems odd is the accents. For some reason, every Viking in this 3-D computer-animated kids’ movie speaks with a thick Scottish lilt. It’s not a huge problem, and the producers probably figured a Scottish accent simply sounds funnier than a guttural Nordic one, but it does register as we enter an alternative reality where a small community of Norsemen find themselves be- sieged by flying dragons.
For centuries, the dragons have stolen livestock and maimed humans, forcing the villagers to create new weapons of mass dragon destruction.
For young Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), everyday life is one long apology. Small and scrawny but intellectually gifted, Hiccup can’t contribute much in the way of brawn, but he does have a few good ideas about design.
When Hiccup uses one of his new sling canons to hunt down the night fury, the fiercest dragon of all, his entire world changes.
He hits the dragon and injures it. When Hiccup stumbles on to the “debris trail,” and realizes the dragon is trapped in a canyon without enough wing power to escape, the two outsiders form a familiar bond.
That’s obvious from the get-go, and it’s a relief that directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders ( Lilo and Stitch) quickly get to the heart of the dilemma. Young Hiccup is forced to make a huge decision: Does he tell his macho father (Gerard Butler) the truth about downing the dragon in order to win his elusive masculine approval? Or does he keep it a secret to safeguard his new friend?
If he tells his father, his new dragon buddy will surely be executed. If he keeps it a secret, he could be putting his whole community at risk.
Tough one. But we know how these plots go: The kid keeps the secret beast under wraps until the truth becomes too big to hide, and the stakes become dramatically desperate.
With a plot composed of narrative recyclables, the real surprise in How to Train Your Dragon is how well it works, and that’s because the movie delivers great characters. Hiccup, his macho dad and the stumpy apprentice ( Craig Ferguson) are all stock figures, but through performance, some sweet animated touches and a few Avatar-ish nods, this unassuming 3-D reel finds a place to curl up at your feet.
The friendly dragon at the centre of the story is one of the bigger assets, largely because the night fury doesn’t look like any other dragon or monster we’ve seen before.
Where most modellers use dogs, insects or large land reptiles as the inspiration for their dragons, the de- signers on this movie clearly looked at cats — and the feline twist proves different enough, and cute enough, to give the film a new edge.
We care about the big, black flying puma with scales, and from that point of empathy, the directors are able to carve new shapes from a mound of saccharin.
It’s not a complete reinvention of the wheel by any measure, but the writing meets the twin needs of a parent-kid crowd, and the digital animation is top-notch. All of which ensures How to Train Your Dragon isn’t just a sweet retread of Old Yeller, but an ambitious continuation of the same journey packed with socially relevant messages about war and peace, as well as domestic pets.